The wondrous life of sailor, sideshow attraction, tattooer and craftsman Armund Dietzel is further explored in Volume 2 of These Old Blue Arms: The Life & Work of Amund Dietzel by Jon Reiter of Solid State Tattoo in Milwaukee. I highly recommended Volume I last year, and this new hardcover surpasses it.
Volume II does not simply take over from where the story of Dietzel's life left off in the first, but in fact, revisits some of Dietzel's early history so that the timeline of his life is fully contained in this one book. Of course, for the full colorful picture, both volumes are essential reading for tattoo history lovers.
Like the first, Dietzel's story is woven through rare images of his tattoo flash as well as photographs documenting his art and personal life. It begins with a foreword by Fred Stonehouse who recalls that magic moment when he came across Dietzel's Milwaukee shop as a child in the 60s. But when he returned as a teenager, the shop was no longer there, only a ghost town. This foreshadows the final chapter "Mop-Up" about Dietzel's last days tattooing when he sold his shop to his friend Gib "Tats" Thomas in 1964 but stayed on and kept working until 1967, the year when tattooing was banned in Milwaukee. "Amund defiantly tattooed through the very last day his profession was legal in the City of Milwaukee, and then retired." He died in 1974 just before his 83rd birthday.
These Old Blue Arms is a great testament to his adventures, best encapsulated at the beginning of Chapter 1:
Amund Dietzel had the life that many of us would have wished to have. If one could imagine a journey that would provide stories enough to fill every lag in conversation that might occur henceforth to the end of one's life, Amund Dietzel has such a life. It has everything one could ask for -- the sea, the sky, the shipwreck, and the salvation. It has the carnival (which in itself is enough for most people), travel and art. It has true love, it has family, hard work, and finally, security on one's own terms.Throughout the book, there are anecdotes that touch upon all these facets of Dietzel's life. For example, Reiter particularly notes that if you're looking to trace the origins of the iconic crawling panther design or the playful skunk "Little Stinker," you should begin with Dietzel flash. In the "Tattooed for Exhibition" chapter, wonderful quotes from a 1928 article in The Milwaukee Journal accompany photos of the artist's more extensively tattooed clientele. In one quote, it is noted that it was tradition that tattooists be "covered" to show real samples of designs, color and good work. Dietzel did indeed work on many of his tattoo brethren in addition to hoards of servicemen in his 60+ years tattooing. [As stated in the "Art of War" chapter: "During the First World War, Amund's studio tattooed over 200 members of the 32nd Infantry Division of the Army National Guard."]
One of my favorite chapters is "The Anatomy of a Tattooed Man," which highlights Dietzel's own tattoos and how he chose to "put himself on display." What's especially cool is the juxtaposition of his flash art with photos of his own tattoo work in the background, as shown above.
A sure favorite for those with a passion for tattoo machines is the "Tools of the Trade" chapter as it takes a close look at Dietzel's signature tattoo machines, the inspiration behind them and some technical discussion on the builds.
In fact, every chapter is filled with historical tattoo goodness that will excite artists and collectors a like. You can purchase the 215-page hardcover online from Solid State Publishing for $50 (plus shipping).
I'll begin simply by saying that These Old Blue Arms: The Life & Work of Amund Dietzel is a bookshelf mandate for lovers of tattoo art and culture. Written by Jon Reiter of Solid State Tattoo in Milwaukee, it not only captures a legend but the richness of tattoo Americana.
Last month, Patrick posted a preview of the book, and over vacation, I made it my essential reading -- although not beach reading as I didn't want to risk damaging the 200-page hardcover. While I devoured the entire book in just a few hours, its resonance is long lasting. It is in one volume a book of history, artistic reference, and tattoo lore as well as a meticulously researched biography.
As Fred Stonehouse says in the Foreword, Jon Reiter has made it his mission to "clarify much of the shadowy information" surrounding Dietzel. Reiter cites the Norwegian National Archives to early US newspapers to direct quotes from Dietzel's grandson to paint a picture of a man deemed "one of the last true gentleman tattooers."
The book begins with a short introduction to Dietzel's family life, illustrated by photos from the late 1800s and beyond. We learn that he went to sea at the age of 14 and got his first tattoo--an anchor on his hand--when he docked in Southern Wales in 1907. It was aboard the Augusta later that year when he started his 60+year tattoo career with "six needles bound with cotton and set in a block of wood."
More than tattoo facts, the book tells stories of alleged ship wrecks, war time tattoo culture, and carny life--where Dietzel spent a good portion of his career tattooing and as a "Tattooed Man" sideshow performer. It also shows Dietzel as an artist constantly seeking to refine his craft, noting that he took art classes at Yale and elsewhere at various times in his life. His artistry is ever-present in the hand-painted flash spreads--these pages alone are worth buying the book. [Reiter also gives some background on the root of the word flash, which is fantastic.]
A cast of other characters populate the book like William Grimshaw, Thomas Riley, Cliff Raven, Phil Sparrow, Gib "Tatts" Thomas, and Kenneth "Shaky Jake" Jacobs--a villain who tries to put others out of business through badmouthing and even setting up crooked cops outside of competitors' shops to steer away would-be clients. These great stories never detract from Dietzel's work, which attracted tattoo collectors from all over the world to his Milwaukee studios even before tattoo magazines, the Internet and general acceptance of the art, as Reiter notes.
Dietzel retired in 1967 when Milwaukee banned tattooing. He and Tatts, at the ages of 75 and 65, put up a fight at City Council meetings, but they were largely alone in doing so. In 1974, Dietzel died of leukemia, three weeks before his 83rd birthday. His life is illuminated and honored in this excellent book.
You can order it here for $50 plus shipping.
A second installment is in the works and I'll have more on that as it progresses.